Stanford labs received over $651M in NIH funding last year. Some researchers say that still isn’t enough.

Feb. 26, 2023, 11:06 p.m.

Stanford University was awarded the sixth-most funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) among domestic universities in 2022, according to the NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tool, RePORT. 

Stanford labs were awarded over $651M in 2022, a $40 million increase from $611M in 2021. These grants are project-specific, according to the NIH website. They are essential for labs to fund equipment, research training and researcher salaries, according to AJ Rogers, clinical cardiac electrophysiologist and cardiovascular research scientist at Stanford. 

“Stanford Medical School is relatively small relative to its peers,” said Abby King, professor of Medicine and Epidemiology and Population Health. “So if you think about Harvard and some of the other schools that are much larger, in terms of their faculty and the number of people who are generating grants, Stanford even comes up better.” 

Johns Hopkins University received $840 million in NIH funding, the most of any U.S. university in 2022, according to the report. Harvard received a combined $392.6 million, split between Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard University.

Congress limits the amount an individual can be paid through an NIH grant. This salary cap was set at $203,700 through December 31, 2022 and is renegotiated twice a year. For 2023, the cap is now. $212,100. 

Sanjiv Narayan, Professor of Medicine, says this is a pressing issue for Stanford. “A faculty member has to pay double, triple or five times or more to live here than to live in the Midwest or other parts of the country. So how do you make that [difference] up?” 

Narayan worries that this disparity will dissuade talented researchers from deciding to work at Stanford, and warns that Stanford cannot rely on prestige to draw in talent if going elsewhere could promise a more comfortable life. 

“Excellence knows no geography,” said Narayan. “I can pull up examples of people who’ve just revolutionized the world, from all corners of the globe…we must remember that.”

Cecilia Arradaza, Chief Communications Officer at the School of Medicine, did not comment on how Stanford balances standardized NIH salaries with the cost of living in the Bay Area. 

Researchers themselves admit there’s no easy answer. “I wish I had a solution,” Narayan said. 

Once a grant is submitted, it typically takes six to eight months to be reviewed and an additional six months to receive the decision, according to King, with most grants going through at least two cycles of this process and taking at least three years to be approved.

When speaking about funding from grants, including NIH grants, King said, “We call it soft money, because it’s nothing you can count on.”

The responsibility to procure this “soft money” falls to principal investigators, usually the heads of labs, like King. “Having to, year in and year out, fund your lab [yourself], it’s really stressful. It’s scary,” King said. 

The NIH covers direct and indirect costs of research for the University. Indirect costs fund “facilities, utilities, libraries, administration, student services, etc,” while direct costs are the funds labs directly request from the NIH in grants, according to Stanford’s website for University Corporate and Foundation Relations. 

Since labs request different amounts of funding in NIH grants, the indirect cost rate is calculated as a percentage of the direct costs to ensure a level of standardization across Stanford labs. This rate is negotiated annually between the NIH and Stanford.

In 2022, this indirect cost rate was 57.4% of direct costs, meaning that for every $1,000 a lab received in direct funding straight from the NIH, the University would receive $574 of indirect NIH funding.

While these grants are important for funding research, they do not solely fund University facilities. “Universities are carrying a lot of the costs when they do government-based research,” King said. “The indirects don’t cover anywhere close to what Stanford has to spend.”

NIH grants have become more competitive in recent years. According to the NIH website, only 21% of grants were approved in 2020, compared to 32% in 2000.

This has caused many labs to look elsewhere, such as to non-NIH grants or philanthropists, for their funding. “Our portfolios are much more diverse now in funding sources,” King said. 

Christopher Gardner, Professor of Medicine, whose lab tracks how specific diets impact health, characterizes his research as “exploratory” and is often denied funding from the NIH. 

“High risk, high reward isn’t really an NIH thing,” Gardner said. “A lot of my colleagues talk about how incremental the NIH is, like – you figure this thing out, and what they want is the next thing that’s almost surely going to work.” In recent years, Gardner’s funding has instead come from donors interested in his work. 

While the pursuit of funding continues to challenge many researchers, the University remains encouraged by the impact that many labs’ work has.

“The grants that Stanford Medicine receives from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reflect our faculty’s intellectual passion, commitment to educating students, and focus on creating new scientific knowledge that meaningfully contributes to society,” Arradaza wrote to the Daily.

Allie Skalnik ‘26 is Desk Editor and staff writer for The Daily’s Science and Technology desk.

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